How to create a DVD less entertainment center

Between the two of our children, my wife and I have probably purchased 200 DVDs over the last several years.  Needless to say, the DVDs were all over the place.  Sometimes, they'd get lost.  Other times, they'd get scratched.  I've stopped counting how many times I had to make a copy of the Teletubbies because the DVD player would choke on it.  This is an instruction manual on how to stop the madness.

Wife Acceptance Factor (W.A.F.)

So the idea is to buy a Media Center PC, then rip/backup all your DVDs to a hard drive and access all movies via the Media Center PC.  There are 2 problems here.

Problem:  Your typical Media Center PC is an actual size PC and looks like absolute ass.  I don't think any wife in her right mind would accept a PC humming right next to the family TV. 

Solution: I've looked around, but the choices were image either limited, non-existent or too expensive.  The solution presented itself when Apple announced Boot Camp - ability to install XP or Vista on the box.   I went out a bought the cheapest MacMini, installed Windows XP Media Center Edition on it without any incident.  Boot Camp provided all the necessary XP drivers.  MacMini has a great W.A.F.- it's small, cute, classy and does not make any noise (other than when it wakes up from system standby) . 

The Setup

For the hardware, the following is required:

  • TV - Preferably HD, for best results, capable of at least 1080i.  It should have either a VGA or DVI monitor jack.  It should have a standard stereo input jack as well.  These days I can't think of a single TV that does not have that.
  • File Server - any PC will do.  Here you will store all the ripped DVDs, music, photos, etc...  I use my old Dell PC from 2001.  If you go money to burn, I recommend the Windows Home Server.  The cool trick about this piece of software is that it can make all your drives appear as one.  It's got automatic backup, mirroring, etc...you know the RAID, but without having to understand it.  Plus, it has a really improved version of remote desktop.
  • MacMini - that's going to be your Media Center PC.  You can buy the low end one - all it's going to do is play content.
  • Media Center Remote Controlavailable all over the web.  It comes with a receiver that plugs into the USB port on the MacMini.  If you plan to hide all the hardware in some type of closet or even in a different room, then make sure to get the RF variety (the signal punches through any wall).
  • WiFi - 802.11g is the minimum here.  I had my doubts whether the bandwidth would be enough, but my setup works well, even though there are walls to cross.  If you can afford to string Cat 5 cable all over the house, that's even better.  In fact, that's my plan if I ever jump to HD or BluRay. 

For the software, it's easy as pie.

  1. Create a file share on your File Server.  Call it Movies.
  2. Rip your movies onto the file share.
  3. Install Boot Camp, then Windows XP Media Center Edition on your MacMini.
  4. Install the Media Center Remote Control receiver onto the MacMini.  Make sure it actually works.
  5. Here it starts to get a bit more complicated, but stay with me.  The Media Center software does not know how to play ripped DVDs.  Solution is easy.  My Movies plugin for Media Center fills that niche.  Download it and install it on the MacMini.  Then use the Manager application to actually import all the ripped movies into the My Movies database.  It's a fairly painless experience.
  6. That's all - turn on the TV, switch to the PC source and sit back, have a beer and enjoy your movies.
Alternative Setups.

I've considered other setups, but none of them panned out - maybe they'll be right for you.  Here is one that's especially juicy.  Instead of having a File Server and a Media Center PC, you can have them both on the same box (in the garage somewhere).  So now instead of having a MacMini near your TV, you just plop an XBOX 360 there.  It will act as an extender to your Media Center setup (e.g. theoretically you can do on it everything that you can on do on the real Media Center PC).  The benefits are:

  1. You save a couple of hundred bucks.  Instead of shelling out $599 for MacMini, you pay $399 for XBOX 360.
  2. You gain a gaming console.

However, there was one hiccup I was unable to overcome - at some point Microsoft specifically blocked DVD Video from being transferred to extenders.  There are some workarounds (such as Transcoding 360), but it was just too much of a pain to deal with.

Anyway, happy entertaining.